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LDS Church's new 'Mormon and Gay' website wins cheers and some jeers for ignoring controversial policy

Published November 7, 2016 5:20 pm

'Mormon and Gay' • Softened stance elicits cheers and some criticism for ignoring controversial policies; the church's opposition to same-sex marriage is unchanged.
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Much has changed for gays and lesbians since 2012 in the U.S. and many parts of the world — same-sex marriage is legal, for starters — so the LDS Church decided it was time to redo, revise and reboot its website addressing that population.

Among the biggest changes? The letter "s."

The previous site was known as "Mormons and Gays" — as if those two groups were separate or even opponents. The one that launched Tuesday is "Mormon and Gay," signaling the notion that members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints can be — and are — both.



Unlike the former site, which had a home on the internet separate from the church's official one, causing some to wonder how seriously to take the counsel, pronouncements and mandates, the new materials are found on lds.org. Bringing this content under that umbrella is seen as a key move, showing authoritative approval that stretches up to the faith's governing First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

Like the previous version, "Mormon and Gay" features video clips of LDS gays, lesbians, their family and friends, sharing agonizing accounts of dealing with their own or others' sexuality. It also highlights short sermons from church leaders, including advice from Carol F. McConkie, a counselor in the Young Women general presidency for teenage girls, who says, "I know people who come to church every Sunday … and walk away feeling judged and unneeded, like there is no place for [them] at church."

Mormons at every level "need to do this differently," McConkie says. "We cannot allow judgment to dictate the way we interact with people. It's just not right."

There are sections dealing with definitions (the use of "same-sex attraction" vs. "gay," for instance), tips for parents, whether to seek professional counseling, and help with suicidal thoughts and depression.

Outsiders and insiders offer restrained praise for the Utah-based faith's efforts — though many point to the site's failure to address or even mention the church's hotly disputed policy labeling same-sex Mormon couples "apostates" and forbidding their children from religious rites until they turn 18.

"For the mother of a recently discovered LGBT kid in Alpine, southern Utah, rural Idaho or in other areas of the world, it's a step forward," says state Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City and an openly gay member of the Utah Legislature. "The trajectory seems to be going in the right direction."

Ty Mansfield, a board member of North Star, a support group for believing gay Latter-day Saints and their loved ones, goes even further.

The site is "really good," says Mansfield, a marriage and family therapist in Utah County. LDS officials "were trying to walk a sensitive balance between doctrinal fidelity [the teaching that heavenly sanctioned marriage is only between a man and a woman] and trying to convey a sense of empathy, compassion and outreach."

What he likes about this new mormonandgay.org is that the personal narratives are not just about a single individual, but include other voices with each video — parents, siblings, friends, bishops.

"These are broader stories that encompass a constellation of people, a network," Mansfield says. "It provides a nice sense of the community and relationships we each need."

The site's language may be softer, but the church's position on homosexual relationships remains hard and fast: Being gay is not a sin; just acting on it is.

That leaves Josh Searle — a gay Mormon in Idaho who entered same-sex relationships before being disciplined by the faith and returning to the fold — with few choices.

"Am I doomed to live a life of misery and loneliness as I try to live a celibate life? Is my choice to remain single and try to be celibate emotionally or mentally healthy, or even possible?" Searle asks in one of the site's featured videos.

Living as a celibate gay member "is difficult," he concedes. "There are sacrifices made, lonely nights felt, and sorrow that the eye cannot see. But God has blessed me with moments where I emphatically say I am here to stay the course."

Mormon gay activist Kendall Wilcox applauds the new website, especially the church's willingness to allow interviewees to use terms like "gay and lesbian," rather than insisting on the less-common term "same-sex attracted."

Wilcox also was pleased to see the statement that sexual orientation is not "a measure of one's faithfulness."

In these materials, Mormon officials preach again and again that gay and lesbian members "should not be marginalized or judged, nor have their faithfulness questioned."

As filmmaker and producer of the "Out in Zion" podcast for gay Mormons, Wilcox would like to have seen more explicit rejection of change efforts, so-called "reparative therapy."

"While shifts in sexuality can and do occur for some people," the site says, "it is unethical to focus professional treatment on an assumption that a change in sexual orientation will or must occur."

Unfortunately, Wilcox says, that leaves open the possibility that some change in sexual orientation may occur.

"There is no scientific evidence to support the claim of individuals changing their sexual orientation," he says with frustration. "It is unethical to engage in therapy that promises this kind of change."

Addison Jenkins, president of Understanding Same-Gender Attraction, an organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and straight allies run by students and faculty from church-owned Brigham Young University, was among the LGBT Mormons asked to participate in a focus group as the site was being developed.

One thing he noticed from the start: The site includes no mention of transgender members, beyond saying their needs are different from those of gays or lesbians.

"It was glaringly obvious right away that trans people," Jenkins says, "were not part of the scope of the website."

Jenkins says he was moved by the video of Tonya Miller and her 21-year-old son, Andy, which chronicles his story of coming out as gay and her search for answers in response.

"I went to the temple again and again and again," Tonya Miller says in the video. "And mostly, I left with nothing … no ah-ha moments."

Miller goes on to talk about her unchangeable love for her son, but acknowledges living with some "spiritual ambiguity." She also says she's learned not to ask God "why" anymore, but instead focuses on how she can best love and support her son, who is committed to living his faith, but doesn't know what the future will bring.

That kind of emotion and struggle, is "very honest," says Jenkins, who believes the video and the site's parental tips would have "worked wonders" with his own parents.

"They were so far back into the '70s in terms of their thinking. This moves the ball way forward and sheds some light on the fact that some of these people are not going to stay in the church."

Jenkins says he recently heard of two examples of "abysmal family reactions." One set of parents told their son that "as soon as you start dating a man, our relationship is effectively over."

"When you think of it in those terms, the new site is several steps ahead of that," Jenkins says. "So I think messaging that is more loving and accepting is urgently needed."

Boise-based Shauna Sorensen Jones says she and her husband were also invited to participate in a focus group for mormonandgay.org. The couple have a 17-year-old daughter who came out to her family three years ago. At the time, Jones says, she skipped asking her LDS bishop for support and found the 2012 version of the church's site woefully lacking in anything other than position statements.

Jones says she's encouraged by parental portion of the new content.

"I feel like this is the most guidance or helpful information of any that I've heard from the church for the parents of gay kids," she says. "And I feel like most of it is really good advice — like the suggestion that parents not ask God why this happened but to stay focused on asking how can I help my child and be the parent they need."

The most major — some would say glaring — omission in the new site is no mention of the gay policy announced last November, declaring all LDS same-sex couples to be "apostates" and banning their children from being blessed or baptized into the faith until they are 18.

"I hope that means that the policy is being considered for a change," Jones says. "Or maybe they are just trying not to bring it up because they don't want a backlash."

As to the church's opposition to same-sex marriage, the site makes it clear that is nonnegotiable.

The "doctrine of marriage between a man and woman," the materials state matter-of-factly, "is an integral [Mormon] teaching."

And, the site declares, "It will not change."

 

 

 

 

 

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